Following my best Jarryd Roughead impersonation on a netball court on a cold, rainy Sunday in Paris last November, I found myself with a ruptured Achilles, a cast and crutches from the ensuing surgery, and a seemingly endless stretch of nothingness while I let this infuriatingly slow-to-repair tendon mend. I have played netball for more than 20 years, and been injured to varying degrees of seriousness, but this was my first ever trip to the operating room.
In the days that followed, more than one friend joked that I would not have found myself in that situation if I had been at home watching Netflix, while my Dad suggested that I should stick to parkrun and perhaps reconsider any sports whose high-impact and predilection to lateral movements leave one open to the kind of injury that I had suffered. I best not tell him that women are three to six times more likely to suffer anterior cruciate ligament injuries, according to The Sustainability Report, an injury as synonymous with netball as oranges at half time and a chronic lack of representation in mainstream Australian media.
Netball, and sport more generally, has been the greatest social connector that I’ve had in my 30+ years on the planet. From giving social currency at school, life skills in leadership, crisis management (and anger management, my mother would probably add), teamwork and communication, to a means of connecting with people and finding one’s place upon arriving in new cities and countries, having an interest in talking about and playing sport to call on, wherever I go, has been one of life’s great assets. Accordingly, it is all the more sobering to realise that not everyone possesses this conduit to social insertion that I have had the luxury to enjoy.
The most recent Eurobarometer into sport and physical activity published in March 2018 found that, on average across the then-28 EU member states, 46% of the population never exercise or play sport. When broken down by gender, 40% of men are never exercising or playing sport compared with 52% of women. This difference is notable across age-groups as well, with only 15% of men aged 15–24 never exercising or playing sport compared with 33% of women in the same age group. Turning to the US, the Women’s Sport Foundation’s Teen Sports Report found in 2018 that 40% of teen girls were not actively participating in sport, while those that do, perform better in school, are more likely to have higher self-esteem, stronger relationships and improved physical health. According to a study from EY, 96% of women who hold C-suite positions, played sport during their school or university years.
Gender imbalances exist across a multitude of facets of our society and sport, as we can see, is no exception. Unfortunately, this disparity extends beyond the playing field, into executive and management positions, decision-making, media, and on field leadership, such as coaches and trainers; no doubt contributors themselves to the disparity we see in participation levels right across the life course. The European Institute for Gender Equality found that at European level, women make up just 14% of decision-making positions in the continental confederations of Olympic sports in Europe. From the 28 surveyed, there was just one female president or chair-person and eight vice-presidents of 91 possible positions. Of the 28 member states, just one, Sweden, sat in the gender balance band of 40–60% women in decision making positions, with 43% representation.
If we look closely at France, a hotbed of sports activity with the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup and the European Athletics Championships, Rugby World Cup and Olympic and Paralympic Games all to arrive within the next four years, only one of the 36 federations of Olympic Sports is led by a woman — Isabelle Lamour is President of the French Fencing Federation. According to a recent article in the Le Monde, even sports which count a majority of female participants (based on registrations to clubs affiliated with these federations), like gymnastics, ice sports and equestrian, do not have female presidents nor is the representation in participants mirrored in the representation across executive management and board-level positions.
Ultimately, if women’s interests are not represented at the top, how can we expect recruitment and retention programs, training and development pathways, leadership opportunities, not to mention the existence of role models and mentoring within the organisation, to sufficiently cater to the needs of women in their sports and address this gender balance problem?
There is no quick-fix to this challenge so addressing these barriers and this level of underrepresentation at crucial levels, will require persistence, commitment and hard work. Fortunately, there are organisations and individuals who are willing to take up this fight, some of whom we are lucky to work with here at 17 Sport.
One such organisation is the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King. Their mission is to enable girls and women to reach their potential in sport and life. They deliver programs, provide resources, advocacy and conduct significant research into the state of girls’ and women’s sport across several areas, including participation, barriers to activity, health and safety issues, representation and women working in sport, and coverage and representation across sports media. Their Chasing Equity: The Triumphs, Challenges and Opportunities in Sports for Girls and Women report contains a number of calls to action, to address the current shortfalls and there is no question that it falls to the industry, in addition to policy makers, to develop programs and act upon this advice, if we’re to have a fighting chance of winning the war.
At a participation level, girls and young women need programmes that are designed for them. Physical education and sports classes at school should be designed to cater for all needs and interests. Forcing girls into gender-defined sports without considering their preferences risks killing their willingness to participate all together. Remember, we’re not asking them to try every sport in the hopes they might one day become a champion (although good for them if they do). It would just be great if we gave them the chance to figure out what they enjoy doing, and what kind of benefits that can bring, and without the associated negativity that might stem from whether their chosen sport, or the act of playing sport in itself, is considered “feminine enough”. The importance of these kinds of opportunities for girls to play sport at a young age has been recognised by initiatives like the Danone Nation’s Cup, a17 Sport partner, which has committed to ensuring the equal representation of boys and girls in the world’s largest and long-running football tournament for U12s.
Athletes overcoming the detractors is not a new narrative in sport, but it nonetheless represents another powerful platform from which to advocate for change and lead by example. French freestyle soccer star and 17 Sport client, Lisa Zimouche, recounts her childhood beginnings in football where boys would tell her that girls don’t know how to play football, that they’re not meant to play football and that she had no place playing with them. With a combined fanbase of more than 3.5 million followers across her social platforms, she has more than proven those boys wrong. Showcasing her collection of football tricks and skills on the likes of Facebook and Instagram, Zimouche is adamant about using her profile to empower women in sport, and to see a world made better through sport. She recently joined the Common Goal movement and has been appointed Sport dans la Ville’s ambassador to support programs that help girls have access to sport. “When I put a ball in the street, race, ethnicity, they don’t count. Women, men, everyone is enamoured by the ball. It makes them happy and it makes the world a better place.”
At management level, women in sport need pathways, mentoring and opportunities. Whether it is in quotas, regulation or development programs, such as this Talent Program run by the Australian Institute of Sport for female high performance coaches and executives, specific measures to address the imbalance in participation for women at elite coaching and management level will need to be implemented in order to address the issue. Doing nothing will ensure nothing changes.
Women’s sport will undoubtedly also benefit from some male allies. While incredulous that it should even need to happen for a woman of Serena Williams’ calibre and with her considerable and lengthy list of achievements in sport, I am nonetheless heartened when Andy Murray steps in to correct wayward journalists who conveniently forget Williams’ achievement, such as this video regarding American success at Wimbledon. Back in my native Australia, where the latest fodder for misdirected social media angst is the burgeoning women’s Australian Rules Football competition, former elite-level player in the men’s game, Brandon Jack, stepped in with this particularly brilliant shutdown of the sexist complaints regarding the standard of play in the women’s game. To paraphrase Jack, how can we possibly expect women’s sport to grow if we won’t put some effort into nurturing it separately as its own distinct entity?
I was struck, during the time I was stuck on the couch with only books and television (an endless stream of Biathlon, thank you La chaine L’Equipe) for company, how fortunate I was that sport was always a joy for me. That I could talk about it all day, and watch it all night and I still wouldn’t be satisfied. That the highs that come from team success or individual achievement far outweigh the lows that losses or injuries (like a ruptured Achilles) might bring, and that this level of engagement is accessible to me, even via the television or the newspaper or YouTube. I can go back and watch highlights of the 2019 French Open Final, the 2015 NRL Grand Final or the 400m final at the Sydney Olympics, and feel as much joy and motivation for my own (non-elite) sporting pursuits as I did the moment that these events happened in real time.
But the benefits and experience of sport should not be limited to sports nuts like me. They can and should be available to women and girls (and men and boys) of all persuasions, with multiple levels of engagement, in whatever way, shape or form that might take. This is why the work of the Women’s Sports Foundations of the world, the advocacy of the Lisa Zimouches, the solidarity of the Andy Murrays and Brandon Jacks and the implication of public bodies and private enterprises is essential in tackling the challenges and barriers that women still face to this day. Sport has an immense power and platform and with that comes an immense responsibility. It is time to take on that responsibility and make use of that platform to support endeavors that can make long lasting positive change to the lives of women and girls the world over.
At 17 Sport, we celebrate the important work that our partners do every day in driving society towards gender balance. Thank you streetfootballworld, adidas, Lisa Zimouche, Danone Nation’s Cup, ESPN and Women’s Sports Foundation for everything you do. We’re with you 110%.
Georgie Young is a Senior Account Manager at 17 Sport, the world’s first truly integrated sports impact company on a mission to build a positive future for the world through sport. 17 Sport provides purpose led advisory, commercial and management solutions for brands, sports properties, athletes and non-profits wanting to manage their investments in sport in a more purposeful way. www.17-sport.com